Stephen Dorff, left, and Abdallah El Akal appear in ‘Zaytoun,’ coming Monday to the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival in Lenox.
Stephen Dorff, left, and Abdallah El Akal appear in ‘Zaytoun,’ coming Monday to the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival in Lenox. (Images courtesy of Berkshire Jewish Film Festival)

LENOX -- Back in the late ‘80s, when it was still in its earliest stages, the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival showed old Yiddish films on a 16-millimeter projector in the function room of Congregation Knesset Israel to a handful of people.

Now in its 28th season, the festival has moved to the Duffin Theater at Lenox Memorial High School, which seats 500, and regularly sells out their showings.

"It's one of the older Jewish film festivals in the country," said Margie Metzger, head of the Film Festival's selection committee. "It's very well-established. People will book this into their schedules well in advance."

Knesset Israel's former Hebrew school director, Zeev Raviv, started the festival as a benefit, using his PhD in theatre and film to help promote the Jewish community within the Berkshires. Raviv chose Monday evenings for film viewings so as not to compete with the event-filled weekends of the Berkshires during tourist season.

"When he left, we wanted to keep it going," Metzger said. "It was small, but we didn't want to give it up." All of the proceeds from the festival still go to the Knesset Israel Herbew school

The festival will end this year's season Monday, Aug. 18, with the showings of "Wagner's Jews," a documentary on the boycotting of the infamously anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner's music in Israel, and "Zaytoun," the fictional story of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who forms a reluctant friendship with an Israeli pilot. Both showings will have guest speakers and a discussion following the film.


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"Zaytoun" takes place in 1982, in Lebanon, during the conflict between Iseael and Arab forces based in Lebanon. The film follows the story of Yoni, an Israeli pilot shot down in Beirut and captured by the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Fahed, a young boy whose father was killed in an Israeli airstrike, agrees to help Yoni escape if Yoni will help him cross the border to Israel, where Fahed longs to fulfill his father's dream to plant an olive tree in his ancestral village.

"'Zaytoun' is a very timely film," Metzger said. "It promotes the message that on an individual level, when people work together and get to know each other, peace will happen."

Eiran Gazit, owner of the Gateways Inn in Lenox and former major of the Israel Defense Forces and Intelligence Corps, will speak following the film. Gazit, who moved from Israel to the Berkshires nine years ago, has spoken at the festival in previous years for the movies "Raid on Entebbe" and "The Gatekeepers," both of which he had a personal, real-life connection.

In "Zaytoun" he found a kind of optimism.

"It shows that people are people beyond rhetoric and idealogy," he said.

He also saw in the film the costs of conflict.

"['Zaytoun'] shows the contrast between Israel, with a relatively [stable] government, and Lebanon, which was chaos, and unfortunately has been that way for 40 years," he said.

After the film, Gazit will open the discussion to the audience.

"People will want to talk less about the actual movie and instead about the current events happening [in Israel and Palestine,] which is why I chose not to prepare anything specific," he said. "It's the Middle East -- things can change hour to hour there."

The festival has approached similarly timely and serious subjects earlier in the season, with the showing of "Brave Miss World," the story of Linor Abargil, the first Israeli Miss World, who was sexually assaulted weeks before she was crowned. The film follows Abargil as she travels the globe as an advocate against sexual violence.

On Monday, "Wagner's Jews" will highlight members of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as music historians and scholars, and explore Wagner's life and the implications of his work. Although Hitler and the Nazis later embraced his writings on the Jewish race, Wagner had a close following of Jewish associates and has positively influenced a number of Jewish musicians, according to director Hilan Warshaw's description of the documentary.

Jan Swafford, a composer with music degrees from Harvard and Yale and author of "Johannes Brahms: A Biography" and "The Vintage Guide to Classical Music," will lead the discussion of Wagner's impact on classical music.

Metzger said she tries to keep a healthy variety in the films each season.

"I try to have a cross-selection of different films," she said. "I don't want to do all Israeli films, or all Holocaust films. I want to make sure there's lighter movies and movies that focus on culture."

Films such as Reshef Levi's "Hunting Elephants," a comedy about a teenager who helps his grandfather relive his bank-robbing days, and "The Sturgeon Queens," about the 100th anniversary of Manhattan's Russ & Daughter's lox and herring emporium, have contrasted with a lighter tone.

Metzger said she watched more than 80 films to pick the 14 shown this season, but quality has always been preferable to quantity.

"We try to pick high quality films and speakers, and entertain as well as inform our audience," she said, adding that she chooses films that are "ripe for discussion."

Gazit agreed.

"The films are well picked," he said. "They go beyond what you see on the screen, which makes [the festival] different from most film festivals that I've been to."

Metzger also stressed the festival is not meant only for a Jewish audience.

"The movies we show are universal," she said.

Both of "Zaytoun" and "Wagner's Jews," regardless of plot or circumstance, come down to promoting tolerance.

If you go ...

What: Berkshire Jewish Film Festival

Where: Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St.,

When: Aug. 18

4 p.m. Wagner's Jews

8 p.m. Zaytoun

Admission: $5 Wagner's Jews, $10 Zaytoun

Information: knessetisrael.org